Book Review: A History of Modern Computing, Second Edition

by Nathan Smith

Title: A History of Modern ComputingAuthor: Paul CeruzziPublisher: MIT PressISBN: 0-262-53203-4Price: $22.95 US

A History of Modern Computing covers business and scientific computing from about 1945 until the present. Paul Ceruzzi is a historian and curator, and this evident in his writing, which is more like a textbook than a dramatized history, as many books about computing history tend to be. If you prefer to read about the political maneuverings of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ken Olsen or Nolan Bushnell, you won't find it here. The style of the book is not quite textbook-dry, though; Ceruzzi manages some light humor and conjecture in spots. It is obvious he has an appreciation and deep knowledge of the machines he writes about.

The book is well documented throughout; the last eighth of the book comprises the bibliography, notes and index. The book takes a close look at the evolution of the architecture of computing machines and software, without becoming overly burdensome to the casual reader. The book is organized chronologically and includes such important events as the invention of the transistor, the moon landings and the development of "the chip", and then discusses their effect on computers.

The book starts out by briefly mentioning the beginning of calculating and computing with punch card systems. It then gets rolling with a discussion of the rise of UNIVAC, IBM and the many almost-ran competitors to IBM. The architectures and software development for many of these machines are discussed.

The coverage of timesharing and minicomputers begins in chapter four, with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) leading the charge. The subsequent development of UNIX is covered along with the effect of the minicomputer on IBM and the IBM effort to create a midrange line. Chapters five and six focus on the IBM System/360 and the arrival of the microchip and its effects, respectively.

Chapters seven, eight and nine introduce the microcomputer beginning with the Altair. VisiCalc is described as dragging computers into the workplace with the Apple II in tow. I was disappointed here that there was not more coverage of the machines through which many people probably were first introduced to computers, such as the Commodore PET, 64, 128, the T.I., the Atari micros or the Sinclair/Timex computers, but the Altair and the TRS-80 are mentioned. Few details are provided about the development of the original IBM PC. This book's account of the development of Macintosh is shifted away from Steve Jobs, contrary to many other accounts. The rise of Microsoft and the paradigm shift away from mainframes at IBM are covered. In these writings, Ceruzzi does not paint Bill Gates or Steve Jobs to be madmen, devils or geniuses modern mythos has made them out to be.

Chapter 10, the last chapter, was added for the second edition. It discusses the rise of the Internet and Linux. I feel this chapter might be describing a time that is too recent and that we probably do not yet understand the significance of what has happened. Ceruzzi does justice to software, with discussions of the importance of system software, software development and compilers, including the Open Source movement and Richard Stallman's contribution.

There are a few strange errors in the book, such as the mention on pages 160-161 of the IBM AS/400 being released with other IBM midrange machines in 1978 when it did not actually appear until 1988.

To me, the most interesting parts of the book are where the architectures of the machines of the past are described--strange word lengths, limited CPU registers and tiny memories on machines costing tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. It gives you a greater appreciation of the "supercomputer" that may be on your desk and what you paid for it. We've come a long way, indeed. A History of Modern Computers is not a nail-biting page turner, but it offers a lot of interesting, well-researched information for those curious about the historical aspects of computers.

Nathan Smith is a sysadmin for an intellectual property law firm. A Windows user but a Linux and *BSD aficionado, his is always looking for ways to move toward a more efficient or open environment.

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